“I have lived a thousand years” is the powerfully written account of how 13 year old Livia Bitton-Jackon (born Elli Friedman) was rounded up with her family and community from her home in Slovakia and transported from ghetto to ghetto, concentration camp to work camp, losing her father and many of her family members, managing to endure through the last fourteen months of the war until liberation.
Asked “What message do you have for us?” at a 1995 commemoration event in the German town of Seeshaupt where she was liberated, she decides to write her memoir as her answer, taking the reader on the horrific descent into madness and evil.
“Clusters of people linger on both sides of the road, beyond the fence,” she writes of her arrival in Auschwitz. “Are they men or women? Shorn heads. Gray dresses. They run to the fence and stare. […] The blank stares of the insane. […] This is probably an asylum for the mentally ill.”
Only a short time later, she realizes the truth behind those strange faces crowding at the wire:
“As we emerge from the other end of the building and line up quickly in rows of five, shivering wet in shapeless gray sacks, with heads clean shaven, the idea strikes me. The strange creatures we saw as we entered the camp, the shaven, gray-cloaked bunch who ran to the barbed-wire fence to stare at us, we are them!”
Starving and parched after the interminable journey by cattle-car, Elli and her mother are at first repulsed by the water and food offered to them:
“Suri and Hindi lead us to a puddle, a large hollow in the ground filled with murky water. It has an unpleasant odor.
‘To drink from this? It’s putrefied! It’s filthy! It stinks!’ I look at my cousins with horror. ‘You drank from this?’”
“Aunt Celia reaches into her bosom and takes out a lump of black substance tied on a string around her neck. She unties it and hands it to Mommy.
‘Here. Eat it.’
‘It’s bread. […]’
‘This is bread? It looks like a cake of mud. How can you eat this?’
Mommy takes a bite and tears spring into her eyes. […] She takes another bite, swallows it, and promptly throws up.”
“When the bowl of food is handed to me, I am unable take a gulp. It is a dark green, thick mass in a battered washbowl crusted with dirt. No spoons. You tilt the bowl until the mass slides to the edge, then gulp. The dark mush smells and looks repulsive. The edge of the bowl is rusty and cracked and uneven with dried-on smut. My nausea returns in a flash. […] It has grains of sand in it, just like the bread, and something else – pieces of glass … and wood … and cloth. I spit it out and begin to vomit.”
But with time, they slowly acclimatize in their grim struggle for survival:
“With practiced speed we undress. The stares of the SS guards to longer matter. We feel no nakedness without our prison uniforms as we felt no clothedness in them. Our bodies have lost dimension. It is our souls that are naked, exposed, violated.”
Bitton-Jackon’s memoir is a relentless barrage of tragic images and scenes, such as the first night in the barracks at Auschwitz when a young girl loses her wits and begins to scream, starting a panic. She is taken outside and shot: “She was a dark, nameless silhouette in the night, and like a shadow she disappeared in the night. Only her shriek remained. We all carried her shriek in our souls.”
She describes with graphic intensity the harrowing experience when the cattle cars in which tens of thousands of inmates are being transport are strafed by American planes, killing and wounding indiscriminately, only nine days before the surrender of Germany.
“There is a burst of machine-gun fire. A sudden impact hurls Bubi backward against Mommy and both fall to the floor, blood spurting from Bubi’s forehead. […] machine-gun fire from every direction. […] Blood is bubbling from the shoulder of the girl next to me. The girl on my other side tumbles face own, her soup spilled. A hole in the middle of her back is spurting blood like a fountain. As I lie flat on the floor I see streaks of fire darting through the walls from all sides, and zigzagging through the car. One such flash hits my neighbor in the face, and her eye splatters on her left cheek. […]
A young girl’s leg is torn off at the knee, and she sits holding the lower leg. When she lets go, the lower leg falls to the floor and she stares at the knee bone, a bloody stump protruding from the tattered thigh. Then she begins to scream.”
After the Americans liberate the train in Bavaria, a group of German civilians stands near the station house while an American officer accosts them, telling them “your government … your people bear responsibility.” One German woman approaches Elli and tells her “we didn’t know anything.” She exclaims how hard the work must have been “at your age,” and when Elli asks “how old do you think I am,” the woman answers “Sixty? Sixty-two?”
“‘Sixty? I am fourteen. Fourteen years old.’
She gives a little shriek and makes the sign of the cross. In horror and disbelief she walks away.”